Spurgeon's Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression

“I used to think that the book of Job is in the Bible because this story of suffering is so extreme, so rare, improbable, and unusual,” said Ray Ortlund in a recent sermon. “I don’t think that anymore. Now I think that the book of Job is in the Bible because this story is so common and typical.”

I suspect that Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher of the 1800s, would have agreed. Zack Eswine’s book Spurgeon's Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression is a gift in a world in which suffering is so pervasive, both for the depressed and those of us who have a hard time understanding why depression is so hard.

The Suffering of Spurgeon

Spurgeon was unique. He was one of the first megachurch pastors ever. He was British, Victorian, and Baptist. He was uniquely gifted and accomplished. He was renowned for his quick wit and sense of humor. Yet, he also suffered with poor health and recurring depression.

In October of 1856, Spurgeon preached at Surrey Hall to a crowd thousands when a prankster yelled, “Fire!” In the ensuing panic, seven died and twenty-eight were left seriously injured. Spurgeon, only 22 years old, was ten months into his new marriage, and one month into parenting twin boys in a new house full of unpacked boxes. “The senseless tragedy and the public accusation nearly broke Charles’ mind,” writes Eswine, “not only in those early moments but also with lasting effects.”

As a result, Spurgeon knew what it was like to suffer. He could say:

I have endured tribulation from many flails. Sharp bodily pain succeeded mental depression, and this was accompanied both by bereavement, and affliction in the person of one dear as life. The waters rolled in continually, wave upon wave. I do not mention this to exact sympathy, but simply to let the reader see that I am no dry-land sailor.

Because of this, Spurgeon is qualified to help us. Switching metaphors, Spurgeon compared himself to someone who has been in the dark dungeon, and knows the way to bread and water. He is able to help both those of us who have encountered depression, and those of us have a hard time understanding what it’s like.

A Friend for Sufferers

“The fact that such a prominent Christian pastor struggled with depression and talked so openly about it invites us to friendship with a fellow sufferer,” writes Eswine. Depression is horribly lonely; Spurgeon’s Sorrows is a reminder that while the feelings of loneliness may persist, we are not alone. It is a relief to read a book that describes depression and speaks truth, but without glib answers. It’s more of a travel guide about someone who has been there too.

While there are no easy answers for the depressed, there is company.  “Broken hearted one, Jesus Christ knows all your troubles, for similar troubles were his portion too,” said Spurgeon. Other great Christians also struggled with depression. “You are not the first child of God who has been depressed or troubled…Do not, therefore, think that you are quite alone in your sorrow.” Others may not understand your depression, but God does, and he is compassionate.

A Help to Friends of Sufferers

For those who have never been depressed, it’s hard to understand the sufferings of the depressed. Ironically, Christians can sometimes be the least prepared to understand or help. Spurgeon’s Sorrows helps us here too. Depression is “neither a sign of laziness nor a sin,” Eswine writes, “neither negative thinking nor a weakness…No saint or hero is immune.” Having never experienced depression ourselves, we should be slow to judge. “We should feel more for the prisoner if we knew more about the prison,” said Spurgeon.

Spurgeon also helps us understand that Christians can continue to struggle with depression. “We do not profess that the religion of Christ will so thoroughly change a man as to take away from him all his natural tendencies.” Because of this, “Depression of spirit is no index of declining grace.” Depression is a “misfortune not a fault,” and therefore it does not merit our condemnation.

Spurgeon helps us understand how dark things can get. “I wonder every day that there are not more suicides, considering the troubles of this life,” he said. Indeed, he believed that some miseries we experience are worse than death. Spurgeon reasoned with those who felt suicidal, believing that while suicide is not the unpardonable sin, the temptation should be resisted. Still, Eswine says, “We must take great care before judging someone who tries to overcome miseries that we ourselves have never encountered.”

Finally, Spurgeon also helps us see that our words often fail when it comes to helping the depressed. Right theology, trite sayings, and quick fixes are not enough. Depression is complex, with circumstantial, biological, and spiritual contributors. “There is a limit to human power,” said Spurgeon. “God alone can take away the iron when it enters into the soul.” A Christianity that is only prepared for sunshine and positive thinking is a counterfeit Christianity.

This message is especially important for those of us who preach. We should be careful in how we address the complexities of life, and preach with understanding and compassion to those who are hurting.

Thankful for This Book

As a young pastor, I was ill equipped to deal with depression. Years later, I am better acquainted with the weight of suffering that many — indeed, most — carry. But I still need help. I still need to grow in my capacity to care for others, to resist easy answers, and to learn from the suffering that I would rather avoid.

Zack Eswine has served us well by helping us learn from Spurgeon’s sorrows. It’s a book that deserves to be read widely, both by those who suffer with depression, and the rest of us — especially pastors — who want to care for those who suffer.

More from Amazon.com | WTS Books

How I Prepare Sermons

I recently blogged about my decision to start writing sermon manuscripts again. A couple of people asked about my routine in preparing sermons. I don’t know that my routine is the best, but since I enjoy hearing how others prepare to preach, it may be helpful, or maybe interesting.

My approach has been to follow the process outlined in this sermon preparation cheat sheet. I try to discipline myself in two areas, with varying success:

  • Spend enough time in the text before turning to the commentaries. This one is hard for me!
  • Exegesis comes before homiletics. Understand the text before you think about how to communicate it.

In the old days, before church planting, I’d devote four mornings a week to sermon preparation. On Monday and Tuesday I’d work on exegesis; on Wednesday and Thursday I’d begin to craft a sermon from the exegesis.

I now do the same thing, except on one day: Thursday. I fight (again, with varying success) to reserve the bulk of that day for sermon preparation. Everything conspires against that happening, which means that the preparation often spills over to Friday and Saturday. My goal, though, is to get it done on Thursday and then put it on the back burner until I preach. Internalizing the sermon, without looking at it, is a huge part of the preparation for me.

There’s one major disadvantage to saving the preparation for one day: there’s less time to slow cook the sermon over the week. My best insights have come to me outside of sermon preparation time. That doesn’t happen nearly as often when the preparation time is so concentrated.

For the past few years, I’ve used Scrivener to write my sermons. If you have a Mac, it's worth checking out. UPDATE: There's a Windows version too. I love roughing the sermon out using the index card feature, and then filling in the outline piece by piece. It chunks the task so that it’s more manageable and less overwhelming.

I'm rarely with my sermon when it’s done. I’ve been surprised, though, that when reading some of my old sermons they’re not quite as bad as I remembered.

That’s how I do it. I was encouraged to read Joe Thorn’s tweet the other day. It gave me perspective:

I’m thankful that God uses imperfect preachers who are short on time to proclaim his glories.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

Why We Need to Practice Confession

Here are four arguments for the practice of regular, public confession.

A Pattern Among Fallen Pastors – Lessons for Us All

During my time in seminary I took a leadership course taught by the late-great Dr. Howard Hendricks. As we studied the life of David, Prof shared a study he conducted with a group of men in full-time ministry who had fallen into a morally disqualifying sin.

7 Things NOT to Say to a Depressed Christian

You’re not given a podium to preach to the depressed; you’re given arms to hold them.

What’s Their Problem? Sharing Our Pews with Sexual Abuse Victims and Survivors

The first step in creating a healthy atmosphere for victims/survivors and recovering offenders is to focus our empathy on the victims/survivors.

Till Death Do We Part – Keeping the Vow Till the End

As he grieved and planned for her funeral, he wanted to honor his wife one last time and fulfill his vow “until death do we part.”

If We Are Faithless

I seem to dwell on certain Scriptures for a season. This past year, I’ve been dwelling on 2 Timothy 2:1-13. It’s a feast for anyone, and I haven’t been disappointed as I’ve meditated on it repeatedly. I commend this passage to you as well.

I seldom get to verses 11 and 12 without getting a bit nervous:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us…
(2 Timothy 2:11-12)

Paul ramps up the pressure in the areas of conversion, endurance, and apostasy. In a succession of statements, we’re called to do our part, expecting that God will respond appropriately. The first two promise divine blessings; the third stops me in my tracks with its severe warning. Disowning Christ has eternal consequences.

Not good.

The problem is that I know my track record. I would never want to deny Christ, but I get nervous when something as important as this is left up to my track record, which is spotty at best. That’s why Paul’s next line is so surprising and relieving:

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
(2 Timothy 2:13)

Paul breaks with the act-consequence pattern. There’s some debate about what he means. Some take it as a warning: God will be faithful in denying those who deny him. While that is possible, it sounds more like a note of hope to me: because God is who he is, he remains faithful despite our weakness. Apostasy is one thing; our faltering weakness is another.

This is not theory. This is the story of my life. I am often unfaithful; despite this, God persists in his faithfulness to me. Samuel Rutherford wrote in the 1600s:

Often and often, I have in my folly torn up my copy of God’s covenant with me; but, blessed be His name, He keeps it in heaven safe; and He stands by it always.

Our obedience is important. Our confidence, though, is ultimately not in our obedience, but in the faithfulness of the God who guards us. That’s good news indeed

Why I'm Back to Writing Sermon Manuscripts

When I finished as pastor of an established church in January 2012, I made a massive switch in how I prepared sermons. Up until that point, I’d developed a practice of preparing a sermon manuscript before I preached. I rarely took the manuscript to the pulpit with me, but writing my sermon in advance helped me think my way to clarity in my sermon preparation.

When I began the process of planting a new church, I first spoke as an itinerant preacher, often repeating the same message. In late 2013 I began to preach again regularly to our new church, but truncated my sermon preparation and tossed the manuscript. As a church planter, I felt I couldn’t afford the same amount of time to prepare sermons as I had before.

I still spend less time preparing sermons, but I’ve returned to preparing a manuscript again. The reason? My friend Paul Martin said something that stuck with me:

A church will never be better than its preaching.
— Paul Martin

We walk a tightrope here. Tim Keller says, “If you put in too much time in your study on your sermon you put in too little time being out with people as a shepherd and a leader. Ironically, this will make you a poorer preacher.” Someone else has offered this advice to church planters: “Spend the majority of your time out in the community rather than cooped up in your study preparing messages” (Roger N. McNamara and Ken Davis, quoted in Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches). 

At the same time, I’ve found that if I don’t manuscript, I’m not capable of producing the kind of sermon that will live up to the kind of church that we want to see planted. Maybe other people can preach without having prepared a manuscript, but I need that practice in order for me to have the clarity I need.

“A church will never be better than its preaching.” That’s not an excuse to devote an inordinate amount of time to sermon preparation, but it is a reminder that every preacher has to figure out what they need to be able to preach a message that sets the tone for the church that is taking shape. For me, that means writing a manuscript.